I get this call about once a year. It could be from a family member or a friend or a former colleague. But it usually involves a friend of a friend with a son or daughter who is interested in a career in the movies. They ask if I’d be adverse to meeting this young person for coffee or spending a little time on the phone with them? I generally have no problem complying, limiting the favor to a telephone chat. It often goes something like this:

“What can I do for you?” I will ask after our initial hellos, where you from and how’s the weather?

“I just love movies and hope to one day work in them.”

“In what capacity?” I ask.

“Well, I’m a performer.”

“An actor?”

“I guess so. Yes. I’d like to be an actor.”

Okay, time out. For purpose of this sample dialogue, I’m going with the actor factor. But believe me when I say this conversation doesn’t apply to just wannabe thespians. This is about everybody with a dream. Alright then. Back to the blog. Time in.

“Have you worked at all?” I ask. “As an actor, I mean.”

“Not yet. That’s why I’m calling you.”

“Well,” I’d say. “Tell me something about yourself.”

“Like what?”

“Like what makes you special? What makes you stand out?”

“Okay. Well. Just last year, I was Miss Stanislaus County. And before that, I was the lead in all my high school plays. Oh. And if I go to college, I’m planning on studying acting.”

“And where are you going to college?”

“I haven’t decided yet. Plus I wanted to give Hollywood a try first.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is a cliché. You already know this girl. Eyes cluttered with stars and fantasy. But you gotta start somewhere, right? Huge careers have been built on less.

Yet I need to ask her again:

“Like I asked you before. What makes you special? What makes you stand out from the crowd?”

“Did I say I was Miss Stanislaus County?”

“You did.”

“Oh.”

“Let me help you out,” I usually say about this point in the conversation. “Were you prom queen, homecoming queen? Anything like that?”

“I was. Yes. Two years running.”

“Right. And you were lead in all the shows. You took dance and voice lessons since you were a little girl.”

“Yes. I took dance. Jazz, ballet, hip-hop -”

“Outstanding. Good stuff,” I’d continue. “And ever since you can remember, people have been telling you that you’re a star. Should be in movies, TV. Stuff like that?”

“Uh uh. My local newspaper always mentioned that kinda stuff in their reviews.”

“And that’s outstanding. Really it is. But follow me.”

Here’s where I would produce some pretty basic numbers. Such as 35,000. That’s roughly the number of high schools in the U.S. That means every year there are 35,000 prom-slash-homecoming queens, many of who are also theatrically inclined and garnered rave local notices from editors whose day job in selling flood insurance. Add to that the over 3,000 Miss Name-That-Counties that are annually crowned, so many of whom are already plotting their escape from Smallville before rhinestone tiaras are gently plugged into their hair-sprayed dos.

Now imagine a mere one-quarter of one percent of those special young women arriving on the Sidewalks of Showbiz. And that’s every year! One thousand spanking new dreamers making landfall with suitcases packed full of hopes, rave reviews, and a host of Most Likely to Succeed in Hollywood votes tabulated by the fine folks on the yearbook committee.

And these annual arrivals doesn’t even include the countless others who arrive in Lalaland with their sights set on stardom. Community theater actors, BFA’s with college degrees in theater, and everyone else who tried but didn’t get selected for a spot on The Glee Project.

“It’s an overcrowded, competitive business,” I’d say to her. “So when I ask what makes you special? What makes you stand out? I absolutely mean it in the best way.”

“I need to stand out.”

“You need to be exceptional,” I’d say. “When you figure out what that is… or where to look for it… you’re starting from the right place.”

Was I being too harsh? Maybe. I’m nothing close to perfect. So neither is my advice. But I do have a point here. One that applies to everybody who’s battling to make his or her way in business more competitive than cold war super powers.

I’m now a screenwriting veteran. My credits are decent enough but I’ve won no awards and good or bad, my movies are paganly commercial. In other words, as I’m dispensing said advice to showbiz hopefuls over the phone or in this blog, I’m really just kicking my own lazy self in ass.

I have a singular writing credo. Be it blog, or novel, or script. Is it compelling? What’s going to make my reader want to turn the page?

Well, that’s no different than asking myself this: What makes me special? What makes me stand out?

Even now, as I tap out this post, I’m questioning the relevance of it. Is it interesting? Worth clicking on? Is it blogworthy? All I can be sure of is that some of you will let me know in the comments section.

Tomorrow morning – when I return to the pages of my next novel or screenplay – I’ll begin by briefly rereading some of what I’ve already written. And then ask myself if the words are worthy of the mass attention required for success in this fiercely competitive world.

Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Great advice, Doug. As a person on the receiving end of similar conversations with you, I appreciate your harshness. Feedback on a person’s career choices is similar to feedback on a script. If it’s not honest, it won’t help.

    • Thanks Jeanne. Prefer to not think of myself as the Harbinger of Harsh. Rather be the Duke of Direct.

  • Most definitely relevant and worth writing/reading. Great advice and something I’ve been needing to re-focus on. Seems to be a recurring theme for me this week – also came across a quote from Neil Gaiman with a similar message “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.” Thanks as always for your insight! Yours is the only blog I actually keep up to date with 🙂

  • “Well, that’s no different than asking myself this: What makes me special? What makes me stand out?”

    This question plagues me to death. As I’m sure it does for other writers. How do I really know if I’m offering anything special? I think I am but am I really? I guess if/when I sell that first spec, maybe I’ll get my answer…

    • As a fellow plague-ee, I feel you. Think the answer is finding the best way to be YOU.

  • Doug I’m a relative newcomer to your blog having come across your site a few months ago. I don’t know you, I’ve never met you we’ve tweeted once or twice and I’ve seen a few of your movies.

    Here’s what I think makes you special

    1st You’re approachable. I feel that I could chat, tweet or mail you and I would get a reply.

    2nd You’re down to earth. You’ve worked on the biggest movies with the biggest stars yet you don’t take it for granted and are happy to share you’re experience with others.

    3rd You’re talented. Anyone who can get their work produced or published in any form I feel is talented.

    4th You’re commercial. You know how to get bums on seats, excite an audience and how to get them coming back for more.

    5th You’re honest. You say what you think when you think it with knowledge and experience.

    6th You’re persistent. Previous blogs have told us all about you’re pounding of pavements, dialling of phones and harrasing of superstars ( make my day)

    7th You’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

    All those 7 elements, And I’m sure there’s more I just don’t want to come across as a sycophant or worse a weird internet stalker, add up to who you are and what makes you tick.

    IMO To be where you are now and to reach the heights you have means you are someone very special indeed.

    • Very kind words, Phil. Very kind indeed. I might have to make my kids read this comment.

  • I always tell new actors and writers I meet in NYC, if they think their talent is one-in-a-million, if they’re that special.

    And if they say yes, I remind them that there are 8 million people in NYC and that means there are at least seven others JUST like them, so the one that gets it is the one who works the hardest and the smartest.

    • Said something similar to a screenwriter group last week. I told them they were being outworked. Good words, Josh.

  • Great stuff as ever!

    What makes Doug so special? Well, even from across the pond, he has, unwittingly, been a key inspirational player to my own Screenwriting career. He tells it like it is. He’s certainly rolled with the punches and delivered a few himself. He’s obliging, generous with advice and has a wealth of experience. He should know that if he’s in London, he’s got drinks already bought for him. He responds to me. Reading his blogs kicked me into gear to start penning my own quirky one. That’s why Doug is special to me

    Why makes me so special? One for my own blog maybe?

    • I will one day take you up on those drinks, Ben. Pints of the black stuff.

      • Aye, to be sure that’s right. A man after my own Guinness. Cheers to you, mate.

  • paul

    Friend of mine shared a facebook thingie with me the other day…, said ‘always be yourself…, except if you have the option to be a unicorn, then be a unicorn’. And I was thinking of it when reading this post, Doug. Not sure why, but it seems related somehow. That be truly yourself–unicorn continuum is one hell of a road at times. Still waiting to become refined enough to become relevant, I suppose. While the odds are staggeringly against, when the odds come through it’s a one to one relationship. Thanks Doug, great post!

    • Good advice you received, Paul. I’d refine it to finding the unicorn in yourself. Or myself.

  • Jeff Sherman

    Hey Doug,

    Another terrific and inspirational piece. Young or old, newbie or vet, we all have to always go the extra distance and never settle.

    Best regards,

    Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff. Have a blog I’ll one day write about Barry Levinson on a similar theme.

  • Clive

    I thought you had to act in plays and go to auditions etc.I read on a forum where you act in a film project for nothing- and you get an outake for your ‘reel’.There was an acronym, but i can’t remember it. Apparently the issue is that the people can’t be bothered to give you your bit of film once you’ve done the work.
    The singer Robbie Williams put it well- in terms of talent i’ve stretched an elastic band to the moon. For most of us thats the reality, we have an elastic band and we have to stretch it.

  • johnny H

    Sending the “I will not read your f**king script” article was usually my first response to people . Now I can send people to your blog.

    Thanks Doug!! As always your words always make it worth it to turn the page, or scroll down as the case may be….

  • Clive

    Future Blogg suggestion.

    I’d like to know what’s the creative difference between a film and a book? Take safety expert, is the story the same as it would be if it had been one of your specs? Or is the story creation for a novel different?

  • This is something I try to get across to the actors that I work with (both in auditions and coaching/classes). Each of us has something special about us, something utterly unique – the key is to do the work, have the self-knowledge, the self-discovery…and then be able to get out of your own way and let it shine through you to be able to show people…to be able to tell your story as you see it.

    We’re all special and have stories to tell. The talent comes from being able to access it.

  • Thanks Doug, I always forget how the same rules (and similar stats) apply to everyone, not just actors and scripts. Any advice on how you sell yourself as a storyteller, espescially if you were never prom queen? 😉

    • Pretend you’re a prom queen. And then be the best prom queen that ever was.

  • Loving the unicorn prom queens, Doug.

    I suggested to one discussion group the idea of making every page of a screenplay something a reader couldn’t put down (I thought it was a great idea–just like your blog!) and was amazed and appalled at the objections. Perhaps that’s my particular unicorn.

    • Your unicorn or not, I think making every page pop is a grand idea.

  • Scott Rolfe

    Doug,
    You are right about work. There is no such thing as luck. Luck is when skill means opportunity. All a person can do is the best they can with the skill they have.
    I have representation as an actor? Why? I fill a need.
    I have mild cerebral palsy on my left side. I did many plays in college.
    I have a friend who makes his living as an actor. He convinced me to try it again. Saw my passion. Back to class.
    He came to me one day and said his agent wanted to talk to me. I got to audition for NBC. It went well, and she asked me to join her for a meeting weeks later. She needed me.
    I told her I writing is what I do best. I would learn screenwriting and write short films for my acting. That led me to the Dallas Screenwriters. I’m trying to do my passion, make films, and change perceptions.
    Acting is being under pressure. You get one shot. I know many actors better then me who don’t have a representation for whatever reason. I was fortunate, yes, but I did the work and made the most of my chance. Somebody liked it, and now I get to work at something I love. That is a gift unto itself. Now, I have to go and watch your action panel talk, Doug! Looking forward to meeting you.

  • James Hornsby

    First I have to say, thank you for the question, next I have to ask how have many people responded to it? If they shy from it, do they need coaxing? Are they the next possible star? writer? producer? director? Do they believe in themselves enough to refine their crafts and tuff it out in this god-for-saken-business?

    Some people get breaks, the rest work for them, some never get it, some never will, but hopefully not.

  • Grace

    You haven’t mentioned how much nepotism comes into play in Hollywood…. I dated a guy for awhile here. His father was a producer/director and the whole family was in the business in one way or another. You know as well as I do that a certain number of those “slots” are going to go to friends and relatives and the chances for someone totally unknown from Podunk Iowa are that much smaller… It’s not enough to be great. You have to be lucky too.

    • Yes, Grace. Luck does matter. Yet showbiz is not a lottery. And I didn’t mention nepotism because it really doesn’t have much to do with anything in my piece. Nepotism exists everywhere in practically every industry on the planet, from politics to manufacturing. Hollywood is no different. But as a showbiz veteran who knows countless people working up and down the ladder, I can say that I know I’ve encountered a shocking few who made it in on a family connect. I have though met countless wannabes who are on the outside looking in who’ve complained that it’s a business rife with who-you-know nepotism. Sadly, this line has become the defacto excuse for so many who don’t have the courage to look inward.

  • Grace

    I’m torn over what you are saying. Yes, there is some truth to it — but there are also actresses like Tori Spelling who was never Queen of anything, as far as I know. If she had to break into the industry on talent and looks alone, she’d still be living in Iowa.

    I’m not a “showbiz veteran” but I’ve lived in Burbank for 30+ years and I’m just calling ’em as I see ’em.